Book review – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

My last foray into the Pulitzer Prize fiction winner’s list was Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.  This time round I dived into the Pulitzer Pool and came up with Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, emigrating to New Jersey when he was six years of age.  Our protagonist, Oscar Wao, shares the author’s provenance as well as nerdom; Diaz being a lifelong comic book lover.  In fact, Oscar Wao begins with a quote from a 1966 Fantastic Four comic, “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus??” As a comic lover myself, with a special fondness for the Silver Surfer, there aren’t many better ways to start a novel.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oscar is a nerd.  He’s also vastly overweight, falls in love with every girl he sees (but to no avail), and is busy trying to become the next Tolkien.  Moreover, Oscar’s larger than life family believes it is cursed, which may mean that Oscar may never get his shot at true love or even a first kiss!  The novel’s not, however, just about Oscar.  We get to know his wider family through the eyes of his sister, mother, and grandfather, and we learn a lot more about the curse and about life in the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic, as I became aware through reading this novel, was under the rule of a despot, Rafael Trujillo, for over 30 years (1930 to 1961) at which point Trujillo was assassinated.  And it is in this despotism that we find the origin of the curse.

Oscar is reminiscent of other books I’ve read, including Middlesex, Affections, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in that it’s a generational novel and, as in the case of Middlesex, finds us in two very different cultures.  The first part of the novel is focussed on Oscar Wao (Wao being a mispronunciation of Wilde (as in Oscar Wilde)).  Oscar is a wonderful creation and I was annoyed when the novel moved away from him and focussed on other members of his family.  Despite initial reservations, however, I really enjoyed these parts of the book, which gave the novel a richer sense of self.  However, it’s the Oscar parts which I appreciated the most, especially the comic book and Lord of the Rings references interspersed through the book.  Marvel comics fans will appreciate the following line:

‘I tried to give advice [to Oscar Wao], I really did.  Nothing too complicated.  Like, Stop hollering at strange girls on the street, and don’t bring up the Beyonder any more than necessary.  Did he listen?  Of course not!’

As I write this blog, I recall the story and its characters with a certain fondness that I perhaps didn’t have while reading it.  At 340 pages long, it’s not a particularly long book, especially by Pulitzer standards, though there were parts where things started to drag.  Nevertheless, it’s a well written and enjoyable read, which I recommend.